“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
The Nature of Consciousness
Alan Watts (1915-1973)
So here’s this idea that there’s kind of a plan, and everything responds and obeys that plan. Well, in the 18th century, Western intellectuals began to suspect this idea. And what they suspected is whether there is a lawmaker, whether there is an architect of the universe, and they found out, or they reasoned, that you don’t have to suppose that there is. Why? Because the hypothesis of God does not help us to make any predictions. In other words, let’s put it this way: if the business of science is to make predictions about what’s going to happen, science is essentially prophecy. What’s going to happen? By studying the behavior of the past and describing it carefully, we can make predictions about what’s going to happen in the future. That’s really the whole of science. And to do this, and to make successful predictions, you do not need God as a hypothesis. Because it makes no difference to anything. If you say ‘Everything is controlled by God, everything is governed by God,’ that doesn’t make any difference to your prediction of what’s going to happen. And so what they did was simply drop that hypothesis. But they kept the hypothesis of law. Because if you can predict, if you can study the past and describe how things have behaved, and you’ve got some regularities in the behavior of the universe, you call that law. Although it may not be law in the ordinary sense of the word, it’s simply regularity.
And so what they did was got rid of the lawmaker and kept the law. And so the conceived the universe in terms of a mechanism. Something, in other words, that is functioning according to regular, clocklike mechanical principles. Newton’s whole image of the world is based on billiards. The atoms are billiard balls, and they bang each other around. And so your behavior, every individual, is defined as a very, very complex arrangement of billiard balls being banged around by everything else. And so behind the fully automatic model of the universe is the notion that reality itself is, to use the favorite term of 19th century scientists, blind energy. In say the metaphysics of Ernst Haeckel, and T.H. Huxley, the world is basically nothing but energy–blind, unintelligent force. And likewise and parallel to this, in the philosophy of Freud, the basic psychological energy is libido, which is blind lust. And it is only a fluke, it is only as a result of pure chances that resulting from the exuberance of this energy there are people. With values, with reason, with languages, with cultures, and with love. Just a fluke. Like, you know, 1000 monkeys typing on 1000 typewriters for a million years will eventually type the Encyclopedia Britannica. And of course the moment they stop typing the Encyclopedia Britannica, they will relapse into nonsense.
And so in order that that shall not happen, for you and I are flukes in this cosmos, and we like our way of life–we like being human–if we want to keep it, say these people, we’ve got to fight nature, because it will turn us back into nonsense the moment we let it. So we’ve got to impose our will upon this world as if we were something completely alien to it, from outside. And so we get a culture based on the idea of the war between man and nature. And we talk about the conquest of space. The conquest of Everest. So we’re going to conquer space. You know we’re in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let what outside space has come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We’re as far out in space as we’re ever going to get. But, you know, sensitivity isn’t the pitch. Especially in the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture of the United States. We define manliness in terms of aggression, you see, because we’re a little bit frightened as to whether or not we’re really men. And so we put on this great show of being a tough guy. It’s completely unnecessary. If you have what it takes, you don’t need to put on that show. You don’t need to beat nature into submission. Why be hostile to nature? Because after all, you ARE a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, you grow out of this physical universe in just exactly the same way that an apple grows off an apple tree.
So let’s say the tree which grows apples is a tree which apples, using ‘apple’ as a verb. And a world in which human beings arrive is a world that peoples. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in. Just as spots on somebody’s skin is symptomatic of chicken pox. Just as hair on a head is symptomatic of what’s going on in the organism. We say ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t. You came out of it. We say ‘Face facts.’ We talk about ‘encounters’ with reality, as if it was a head-on meeting of completely alien agencies. And the average person has the sensation that he is someone that exists inside a bag of skin. The center of consciousness which looks out at this thing, and what the hell’s it going to do to me? You see? ‘I recognize you, you kind of look like me, and I’ve seen myself in a mirror, and you look like you might be people.’ So maybe you’re intelligent and maybe you can love, too. Perhaps you’re all right, some of you are, anyway. You’ve got the right color of skin, or you have the right religion, or whatever it is, you’re OK. But there are all those people over in Asia, and Africa, and they may not really be people. When you want to destroy someone, you always define them as ‘unpeople.’ Not really human. Monkeys, maybe. Idiots, maybe. Machines, maybe, but not people.
You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves, and the universe peoples. And as I wave and say to you ‘Yoo-hoo!’ the world is waving with me at you and saying ‘Hi! I’m here!’ But we are consciousness of the way we feel and sense our existence. Being based on a myth that we are made, that we are parts, that we are things, our consciousness has been influenced, so that each one of us does not feel that. We have been hypnotized, literally hypnotized by social convention into feeling and sensing that we exist only inside our skins. That we are not the original bang, just something out on the end of it. And therefore we are scared stiff. My wave is going to disappear, and I’m going to die! And that would be awful. We’ve got a mythology going now which is that we are something that happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium. And that’s it. And therefore everybody feels unhappy and miserable.
This is what people really believe today. You may go to church, you may say you believe in this, that, and the other, but you don’t. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are the most fundamental of fundamentalists, they are polite when they come around and knock on the door. But if you REALLY believed in Christianity, you would be screaming in the streets. But nobody does. You would be taking full- page ads in the paper every day. You would be the most terrifying television programs. The churches would be going out of their minds if they really believed what they teach. But they don’t. They think they ought to believe what they teach. They believe they should believe, but they don’t really believe it, because what we REALLY believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense. You are a fluke. You are a separate event. And you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium, and that’s it, baby. That’s it.
Now why does anybody think that way? There’s no reason to, because it isn’t even scientific. It’s just a myth. And it’s invented by people who want to feel a certain way. They want to play a certain game. The game of god got embarrassing. The idea if God as the potter, as the architect of the universe, is good. It makes you feel that life is, after all, important. There is someone who cares. It has meaning, it has sense, and you are valuable in the eyes of the father. But after a while, it gets embarrassing, and you realize that everything you do is being watched by God. He knows your tiniest innermost feelings and thoughts, and you say after a while, ‘Quit bugging me! I don’t want you around.’ So you become an atheist, just to get rid of him. Then you feel terrible after that, because you got rid of God, but that means you got rid of yourself. You’re nothing but a machine. And your idea that you’re a machine is just a machine, too. So if you’re a smart kid, you commit suicide. Camus said there is only one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. I think there are four or five serious philosophical questions. The first one is ‘Who started it?’ The second is ‘Are we going to make it?’ The third is ‘Where are we going to put it?’ The fourth is ‘Who’s going to clean up?’ And the fifth, ‘Is it serious?’
But still, should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the gamble. Now the universe has been going on for an incredible long time. And so really, a satisfactory theory of the universe has to be one that’s worth betting on. That’s very, it seems to me, elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on, why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it. But the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game, for what they wanted to say was this: all you people who believe in religion–old ladies and wishful thinkers– you’ve got a big daddy up there, and you want comfort, but life is rough. Life is tough, as success goes to the most hard- headed people. That was a very convenient theory when the European and American worlds were colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said ‘We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough. I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else. I’m real hard.’ That’s a way of flattering yourself.
And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person, you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person, you’ve got to be prickly. There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called prickles, the others called goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, and logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists, and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was someone advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what a goo was. Because life isn’t either prickles or goo, it’s either gooey prickles or prickly goo. They go together like back and front, male and female. And that’s the answer to philosophy. You see, I’m a philosopher, and I’m not going to argue very much, because if you don’t argue with me, I don’t know what I think. So if we argue, I say ‘Thank you,’ because owing to the courtesy of your taking a different point of view, I understand what I mean. So I can’t get rid of you.
But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a putdown theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world, you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it is electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught. And you, poor thing, have to put up with being put into a body that’s falling apart, that gets cancer, and is just terrible. And these mechanics–doctors–are trying to help you out, but they really can’t succeed in the end, and you’re just going to fall apart, and it’s a grim business, and it’s just too bad. So if you think that’s the way things are, you might as well commit suicide right now. Unless you say, ‘Well, I’m damned. Because there might really be after all eternal damnation. Or I identify with my children, and I think of them going on without me and nobody to support them. Because if I do go on in this frame of mind and continue to support them, I shall teach them to be like I am, and they’ll go on, dragging it out to support their children, and they won’t enjoy it. They’ll be afraid to commit suicide, and so will their children. They’ll all learn the same lessons.’
So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in a bad sense of the word ‘myth,’ so is this other one. It is just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs. Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence and love and beauty, well you’ve found it in other people. In other words, it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things. We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of this other system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of a whole company of other galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.
But you see, when, as a scientist, you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does, it’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is, describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description, you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words, you cannot talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk, I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. So in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking, I have to describe the room; I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe it as just a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you. And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, in other words, in order to describe my behavior, I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world; it’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.
But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it–aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And, all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, then there will be life making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.
The myth of the world as a political, monarchical state in which we are all here on sufferance as subject to God. In which we are made artifacts, who do not exist in our own right. God alone, in the first myth, exists in his own right, and you exist as a favor, and you ought to be grateful. Like your parents come on and say to you, ‘Look at all the things we’ve done for you, all the money we spent to send you to college, and you turn out to be a beatnik. You’re a wretched, ungrateful child.’ And you’re supposed to say, ‘Sorry, I really am.’ But you’re definitely in the position of being on probation. This arises out of our whole attitude towards children, whereby we don’t really acknowledge that they’re human. Instead, when a child comes into the world, and as soon as it can communicate in any way, talk language, you should say to a child, ‘How do you do? Welcome to the human race. Now my dear, we are playing a very complicated game, and we’re going to explain the rules of it to you. And when you have learned these rules and understand what they are, you may be able to invent better ones. But in the meantime, this is the thing we’re doing.’
Instead of that, we either treat a child with a kind of with a kind of ‘blah-blah-blah’ attitude, or ‘coochy-coochy-coochie,’ y’know? and don’t treat the thing as a human being at all–as a kind of doll. Or else as a nuisance. And so all of us, having been treated that way, carry over into adult life the sense of being on probation here. Either the god is somebody who says to us ‘coochy- coochy-coochie,’ or ‘blah-blah-blah.’ And that’s the feeling we carry over. And God, in this first myth that we’ve been discussing, the ceramic myth is the boss, and the idea of God is that the universe is governed from above.
But do you see, this parallels–goes hand in hand with the idea that you govern your own body. That the ego, which lies somewhere between the ears and behind the eyes in the brain, is the governor of the body. And so we can’t understand a system of order, a system of life, in which there isn’t a governor. ‘O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name in all the world.’
But supposing, on the contrary, there could be a system which doesn’t have a governor. That’s what we are supposed to have in this society. We are supposed to be a democracy and a republic. And we are supposed to govern ourselves. As I said, it’s so funny that Americans can be politically republican–I don’t mean republican in the party sense–and yet religiously monarchical. It’s a real strange contradiction.
So what is this universe? Is it a monarchy? Is it a republic? Is it a mechanism? Or an organism? Because you see, if it’s a mechanism, either it’s a mere mechanism, as in the fully automatic model, or else it’s a mechanism under the control of a driver. A mechanic. If it’s not that, it’s an organism, and an organism is a thing that governs itself. In your body there is no boss. You could argue, for example, that the brain is a gadget evolved by the stomach, in order to serve the stomach for the purposes of getting food. Or you can argue that the stomach is a gadget evolved by the brain to feed it and keep it alive. Whose game is this? Is it the brain’s game, or the stomach’s game? They’re mutual. The brain implies the stomach and the stomach implies the brain, and neither of them is the boss.
You know that story about all the limbs of the body. The hand said ‘We do all our work,’ the feet said ‘We do our work,’ the mouth said ‘We do all the chewing, and here’s this lazy stomach who just gets it all and doesn’t do a thing. He didn’t do any work, so let’s go on strike.’ And the hands refused to carry, the feet refused to walk, the teeth refused to chew, and said ‘Now we’re on strike against the stomach.’ But after a while, all of them found themselves getting weaker and weaker and weaker, because they didn’t realize that the stomach fed them.
The other thing we forget, is that self and other go together, in just the same way as the two poles of a magnet. You say ‘I, myself; I am me; I am this individual; I am this particular, unique instance.’ What is other is everything else. All of you, all of the stars, all of the galaxies, way, way out into infinite space, that’s other. But in the same way as black implies white, self implies other. And you don’t exist without all that, so that where you get these polarities, you get this sort of difference, that what we call explicitly, or esoterically, they’re different. But implicitly, esoterically, they’re one. Since you can’t have the one without the other that shows there’s a kind of inner conspiracy between all pairs of opposites, which is not in the open, but it’s tacit. It’s like you say ‘Well, there are all sorts of things that we understand among each other tacitly, that we don’t want to admit, but we do recognize tacitly there’s a kind of secret between us boys and girls,’ or whatever it may be. And we recognize that. So, tacitly, all of you really inwardly know–although you won’t admit it because your culture has trained you in a contrary direction–all of you really inwardly know that you as an individual self are inseparable from everything else that exists, that you are a special case in the universe. But the whole game, especially of Western culture, is to conceal that from ourselves, so that when anybody in our culture slips into the state of consciousness where they suddenly find this to be true, and they come on and say ‘I’m God,’ we say ‘You’re insane.’
Now, it’s very difficult–you can very easily slip into the state of consciousness where you feel you’re God; it can happen to anyone. Just in the same way as you can get the flu, or measles, or something like that, you can slip into this state of consciousness. And when you get it, it depends upon your background and your training as to how you’re going to interpret it. If you’ve got the idea of god that comes from popular Christianity, God as the governor, the political head of the world, and you think you’re God, then you say to everybody, ‘You should bow down and worship me.’ But if you’re a member of Hindu culture, and you suddenly tell all your friends ‘I’m God,’ instead of saying ‘You’re insane,’ they say ‘Congratulations! At last, you found out.’ Because their idea of god is not the autocratic governor. When they make images of Shiva, he has ten arms. How would you use ten arms? It’s hard enough to use two. You know, if you play the organ, you’ve got to use your two feet and your two hands, and you play different rhythms with each member. It’s kind of tricky. But actually we’re all masters at this, because how do you grow each hair without having to think about it? Each nerve? How do you beat your heart and digest with your stomach at the same time? You don’t have to think about it. In your very body, you are omnipotent in the true sense of omnipotence, which is that you are able to be omnipotent; you are able to do all these things without having to think about it.
But you see, we are playing a game. The game runs like this: the only thing you really know is what you can put into words. Let’s suppose I love some girl, rapturously, and somebody says to me, ‘Do you really love her?’ Well, how am I going to prove this? They’ll say, ‘Write poetry. Tell us all how much you love her. Then we’ll believe you.’ So if I’m an artist, and can put this into words, and can convince everybody I’ve written the most ecstatic love letter ever written, they say ‘All right, ok, we admit it, you really do love her.’ But supposing you’re not very articulate, are we going to tell you you DON’T love her? Surely not. You don’t have to be Heloise and Abelard to be in love. But the whole game that our culture is playing is that nothing really happens unless it’s in the newspaper. So when we’re at a party, and it’s a great party, somebody says ‘Too bad we didn’t bring a camera. Too bad there wasn’t a tape recorder. And so our children begin to feel that they don’t exist authentically unless they get their names in the papers, and the fastest way to get your name in the paper is to commit a crime. Then you’ll be photographed, and you’ll appear in court, and everybody will notice you. And you’re there. So you’re not there unless you’re recorded. It really happened if it was recorded. In other words, if you shout, and it doesn’t come back and echo, it didn’t happen. Well that’s a real hang-up. It’s true, the fun with echoes; we all like singing in the bathtub, because there’s more resonance there. And when we play a musical instrument, like a violin or a cello, it has a sounding box, because that gives resonance to the sound. And in the same way, the cortex of the human brain enables us when we’re happy to know that we’re happy, and that gives a certain resonance to it. If you’re happy, and you don’t know you’re happy, there’s nobody home. But this is the whole problem for us. Several thousand years ago, human beings devolved the system of self-consciousness, and they knew, they knew.
There was a young man who said
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that sees me
When I know that I know that I know.’
And this is the human problem: we know that we know. And so, there came a point in our evolution where we didn’t guide life by distrusting our instincts. Suppose that you could live absolutely spontaneously. You don’t make any plans, you just live like you feel like it. And you say ‘what a gas that is, I don’t have to make any plans, anything. I don’t worry; I just do what comes naturally.’
The way the animals live, everybody envies them, because look, a cat, when it walks–did you ever see a cat making an aesthetic mistake. Did you ever see a badly formed cloud? Were the stars ever misarranged? When you watch the foam breaking on the seashore, did it ever make a bad pattern? Never. And yet we think in what we do, we make mistakes. And we’re worried about that. So there came this point in human evolution when we lost our innocence. When we lost this thing that the cats and the flowers have, and had to think about it, and had to purposely arrange and discipline and push our lives around in accordance with foresight and words and systems of symbols, accountancy, and calculation and so on, and then we worry. Once you start thinking about things, you worry as to if you thought enough. Did you really take all the details into consideration? Was every fact properly reviewed? And by love, the more you think about it, the more you realize you really couldn’t take everything into consideration, because all the variables in every decision are incalculable, so you get anxiety. And this, though, also, is the price you pay for knowing that you know. For being able to think about thinking, being able to feel about feeling. And so you’re in this funny position.
Now then, do you see that this is simultaneously an advantage and a terrible disadvantage? What has happened here is that by having a certain kind of consciousness, a certain kind of reflexive consciousness–being aware of being aware. Being able to represent what goes on fundamentally in terms of a system of symbols, such as words, such as numbers. You put, as it were, two lives together at once, one representing the other. The symbols representing the reality, the money representing the wealth, and if you don’t realize that the symbol is really secondary, it doesn’t have the same value. People go to the supermarket, and they get a whole cartload of goodies and they drive it through, then the clerk fixes up the counter and this long tape comes out, and he’ll say ‘$30, please,’ and everybody feels depressed, because they give away $30 worth of paper, but they’ve got a cartload of goodies. They don’t think about that, they think they’ve just lost $30. But you’ve got the real wealth in the cart, all you’ve parted with is the paper. Because the paper in our system becomes more valuable than the wealth. It represents power, potentiality, whereas the wealth, you think oh well, that’s just necessary; you’ve got to eat. That’s to be really mixed up.
So then. If you awaken from this illusion, and you understand that black implies white, self implies other, life implies death–or shall I say, death implies life–you can conceive yourself. Not conceive, but feel yourself, not as a stranger in the world, not as someone here on sufferance, on probation, not as something that has arrived here by fluke, but you can begin to feel your own existence as absolutely fundamental. What you are basically, deep, deep down, far, far in, is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself. So, say in Hindu mythology, they say that the world is the drama of God. God is not something in Hindu mythology with a white beard that sits on a throne that has royal prerogatives. God in Indian mythology is the self, ‘Satchitananda.’ Which means ‘sat,’ that which is, ‘chit,’ that which is consciousness; that which ‘ananda’ is is bliss. In other words, what exists, reality itself is gorgeous, it is the fullness of total joy. Wowee! And all those stars, if you look out in the sky, is a firework display like you see on the fourth of July, which is a great occasion for celebration; the universe is a celebration, it is a fireworks show to celebrate that existence is. Wowee.